FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Chris Ray's 1-0 fastball buzzed under the chin of Gary Sheffield, sending the New York Yankees slugger to the dirt.
Sheffield, who already had two home runs and six RBIs on that night last September at Camden Yards, brushed himself off, glared at the Orioles' rookie reliever and dug back in, waggling his bat with his typical ferocity.
"Gary Sheffield, if you knock him on his butt, is going to come up and get you," said Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo, remembering the at-bat with clarity yesterday. "I give Chris Ray credit, but the biggest thing was that he came back and was smart enough to say, 'I'd better make a good pitch.' "
Ray did, attacking with a fastball that Sheffield grounded to short, ending the inning. In an otherwise meaningless win for an Orioles team that had long exited the pennant race, Ray provided hope and assurance for an organization that is badly in need of both.
"I think that proves that he has what it takes," said David Stock- still, the Orioles' director of minor league operations. "He's tough, and he can be mean. He has the attitude that he's going to do the job and nobody is going to take that away from him. Sheffield is outstanding as a hitter, and just dominating as a person. Chris Ray did what he felt like he had to do."
Sitting on a steel bench outside the clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday, Ray, a soft-spoken and unassuming 24 year-old with a slight Southern accent, recalled the Sheffield sequence with no more excitement than any of the other outs he recorded for the Orioles last season.
In 41 games last year after his contract was purchased from Double-A Bowie on June 13, Ray went 1-3 with a 2.66 ERA in a setup role. He barely had time to contemplate his rise through the Orioles' system when he learned that the team's 2005 closer, B.J. Ryan, had signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.
At the time, Ray figured that Ryan's departure wouldn't have much of an impact on him. And even now, even after Perlozzo has said that the young right-hander will be the Orioles' new closer, Ray has a much simpler goal.
"I need to make the team just like a lot of other guys here," Ray said. "I only have half of a year of big league experience. This is the first time I am in a major league spring training camp. I have to come in and compete for a job. I can't take anything for granted."
When Ryan's exit created a hole in the Orioles' bullpen, team executives scoured the closer-rich free-agent market, before deciding that their options came with significant risks and price tags.
"We always felt that Chris could handle it," Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan said. "We think he has the makeup for it, the mentality, the physical skills. We saw no apprehension on his part or shaking off pitches to try to trick somebody last year. It was like, 'Here's my best and let's go for it.' That's what you like about him."
Perlozzo worries that the Orioles could risk ruining a potential standout career by rushing the 2003 third-round draft pick into the closer's role. But the manager also knows Ray's makeup - he achieved the highest possible rating in the team's psychological and aptitude testing - and his history of taking the ball in pressure situations on every level.
He was the star pitcher on his Tampa, Fla.-based youth team that finished one win away from going to the Little League World Series. As a freshman at William and Mary, Ray closed out the Tribe's Colonial Athletic Association championship in 2001. "He handles pressure very well," said former Tribe manager Jim Farr, who now is the pitching coach at the University of Maryland. "I always called him a quiet assassin. He's very laid-back, but when he gets on the field and has the ball in his hand late in the game, he's got a killer instinct. I don't think he's going to get too overwhelmed."
At William and Mary, Ray, who has a quirky windup that teammates described as all butt and elbows, Ray mixed periods of inconsistent control with stretches of dominance.
"He could signal that he was throwing a fastball and he would dare you to hit it," said Jeff Lunardi, Ray's former college teammate. "Plenty of guys that stepped up to the plate took themselves out of the at-bat before it started. They knew they had no shot."
Ray dominated Double-A hitters last year, allowing just four earned runs in 37 1/3 innings. Ray's parents went to Prince George's County Stadium in Bowie on June 12, expecting to see their son pitch for the Baysox. When Ray didn't, they approached him after the game and asked him why.
"He said, 'Well, I think I am pitching tomorrow,' " recalled Ray's father, Phillip. "We said, 'Chris, your team is traveling, you're not playing tomorrow.' He said, 'No, I am pitching in Baltimore tomorrow.' It was quite a moment. He was pretty composed, but his dream came true that day."
The Orioles were still in the race in the American League East when Ray's contract was purchased and manager Lee Mazzilli vowed to throw the rookie "into the fire."
In just his second outing, Ray (6 feet 3, 200 pounds) was brought in with the Colorado Rockies having the go-ahead run at the plate in the eighth inning and he got Preston Wilson to pop out. Then, in a scoreless late June game in Atlanta, Ray struck out three straight Braves, including slugger Andruw Jones, and made an immediate impression on Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who is now with the Orioles.
"I talked to Leo a little bit about it, and he said that his comment [in the dugout] was, 'Who is this kid?,' " Flanagan said.
There were times, however, when Ray showed his age. In a June 27 game against the Yankees, Ray entered the game with the Orioles nursing a 4-2 sixth-inning lead, and star shortstop Derek Jeter at the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Ray walked Jeter, and then watched the tying run score on a passed ball.
"That's probably the moment I remember most from last season," said Ray, who was sent back down to Bowie on Aug. 9 but recalled two weeks later. "That was the only time I really was nervous, but I learned a lot from that game. You have to go after guys."
Ray said that his time in the majors has not changed him, even though it has occasionally affected the way he is perceived. Lunardi described his visit last year to watch his former teammate pitch as an "out of body" experience.
Lunardi and Ray were at a homecoming gathering this fall at William and Mary when Lunardi noticed a guy staring and pointing at Ray. Finally, the guy exclaimed, "That guy is on my fantasy baseball team."
Said Ray: "That was pretty neat."
"It's a total different mentality when you get out there on the mound," Ray said. "You have to have that attitude, a little bit of an arrogance to you. But a lot of the qualities you use on the field, you don't take off of it. I am just a quiet guy who goes about my business."
Though he refuses to acknowledge it at this point, Ray's business come April, will likely be taking the ball in the ninth inning to preserve an Orioles lead. It is a responsibility those close to him say that he is perfectly prepared for.
"I was looking around at how different this is than minor league spring training last year," Ray said.
"It's amazing that I am sitting here right now with the opportunity at hand. Every day, I can come out to a big league ballpark in front of all these fans. It's something I wouldn't trade for any other job that's for sure. I am confident that I will be ready for anything."